Forsaking the Spotlight

Sideman's Roundtable: More Cool Is the Gig, Less Is the Pay

Responsibility and attention: None of the Panhandlers seem to be courting it, with the possible exception of Bonta, a prodigiously talented pianoman who is the only 'handler currently leading his own group. While they all have a lot of respect for the frontmen and women they play for, individually, the Panhandlers have no desire to take on that entertainer's mantle. They are happy as sidefolk, hired guns playing a variety of gigs with a variety of bands -- even if it does get a little tiring at times.

"Doing the kind of sidework where you get called in to do all these things is really exciting," says Smith with genuine enthusiasm. "It's really challenging, and really flattering that someone would call you. At the same time, it can be really scary, and there's a lot of insecurity as far as money. You don't make a lot of money doing this. It's really easy to get roped into a lot of side gigs where you're making $20-30 a night, and at the end of the week, yeah, you're paying your bills, but that's it.

"You can beat yourself to death for a month and have very little to show for it except your wife being kind of upset at you because you're never home. [Like] you would rather go to some dinky little honky-tonk and make $20 than spend the evening with her."

"You get into this psychology where you can't say 'No' to anything," injects Miller. "You're so scared that if you say 'No' your phone will stop ringing. So, you just say 'Yes' to absolutely everything. And some things you kind of regret that you said 'Yes' to."

"You gotta take everything sometimes," agrees the Italian-born Bosisio. "[But] inside, there's also your pride. You're a musician. People know you. Sometimes you gotta play with a band that's pretty embarrassing."

The Panhandlers laugh nervously.

"It is," insists Bosisio. "I've done it, you've done it, everybody's done it."

The talk makes the table uncomfortable, and Smith deftly changes the subject, pointing out that he's taken gigs where he's not good enough, played gigs for the money when he didn't have the requisite chops. It's an experience he'd like to forget.

"It's embarrassing and humiliating to stand up there playing music and literally knowing that you're a fraud and having everyone know that you're a fraud, too," says Smith. "I've given money back at gigs."

Bosisio then tempers his claim, saying he doesn't want to be misunderstood. If he's embarrassed on stage, it's not because he thinks he's too good for a band, but because he doesn't jive with their musical style: He'd rather not play music he doesn't like.

"I'd like to just do the cool gigs," he says, "but unfortunately, more cool is the gig, less is the pay."

With the hustle on to make a living, many side players find themselves overextended -- particularly ones with as much professional appeal as Pankratz.

"You always have to be walking the line of figuring out at what point are you stretching yourself so thin that you feel like you're not giving enough quality to the act that you're agreeing to play with," explains Pankratz. "And it's not just an obligation to the people that are hiring you, it's an obligation to your love of music."

Then there's the road: tiring, but a solid gig. But there too lies a catch, as Pankratz explains:

"You're home just long enough that you gotta make some money, but you've been gone just long enough that no one thinks you're in town anymore."

Miller seconds the notion.

"Do you go and make good money and really learn the songs and then come home and not have any work, or do you stay here and do everything, and never really know the songs as well as you should, and make $50 here, $50 there?"

Enter the Panhandlers.

"One of the reasons we put this band together was so that we could have one thing where we actually knew the songs, could dig into it a little bit," says Miller. "We could all tour, but we could always come back and know this was going to be here. We could always do this on Monday no matter what. For me it saves my mental health. This is one band we can be proud of -- can still go out on the road and come home and be proud of."

The Panhandlers as 401(K)

Plans are afoot to make the Panhandlers more sustainable. One goal is to gain currency as an established backing band, gig-tight and fully equipped.

"We are available for studio work," says Smith with more than a hint of salesmanship working into his voice. "When somebody comes to town to record any kind of traditional country, I would hope that they would call the Panhandlers and have them as a backing band. That's what I would like to see happen, because I think that these are the best musicians at it."

Miller hints, too, without getting specific, that studio work may already be in the pipeline. Nevertheless, your best chance to check the Panhandlers remains their weekly Threadgill's shows. It's hard enough getting seven working musicians together to practice -- the last time they all rehearsed together was over a year ago -- and substitutions happen regularly as members of the group hit the road with one of their other gigs, but they are all able to get together more than even they thought possible. Touring, as the Panhandlers, however, would be another story entirely.

"I think we'd all love to [take it beyond Monday nights]," says Smith. "Realistically, we don't have the time right now to spend on it. If I had my way, in 10-15 years, this would be my retirement gig. We'd have a house residency at some place like Threadgill's here, and we'd come every night and play all night long. But right now we just can't do that. If I could retire and play with this band, I'd be really happy. I'd love it."

There's a chorus of agreement from the table. But they ain't ready to hang up the travelin' boots just yet.

"I think we all have a lot of things to prove and a lot of things to do in our personal careers right now, as well as doing the Panhandlers," says Smith. "But there will come a time when I'm ready to just stay at home. Just stay at home and not worry about making records, not worry about doing anything but playing. And when that comes, I hope to have a situation like this."

There is an image, offered by Pankratz, of an older set of Panhandlers, hair gone gray and retired from the road, sitting on a stage somewhere in rocking chairs, smoking cigars, passin' the biscuits, and playing the music they love. That, they all agree, would be a most cool gig.

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